Tips on How to Handle Silence or Uncomfortable Moments in an Oral History Interview

Silence and uncomfortable moments are natural parts of oral history interviews. After all, you are asking people to share their personal stories, which can be difficult and even painful. However, it is important to be able to handle these moments in a way that makes the interviewee feel comfortable and respected.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence. It is perfectly normal for people to pause to think before answering a question, especially if it is a difficult one. Give them the time they need to gather their thoughts and feelings.
  2. Acknowledge the silence. If the silence becomes too uncomfortable, you can acknowledge it by saying something like, “I can see that this is a difficult question for you to answer. Would you like to take a break?” or “I understand that this is a sensitive topic. Are you sure you want to talk about it?”
  3. Redirect the conversation. If the interviewee seems uncomfortable with a particular topic, you can try to redirect the conversation to something more general. For example, if they are talking about a traumatic experience, you could ask them to talk about how they coped with it or what they learned from it.
  4. Be respectful. Remember that the interviewee is sharing their personal story with you. Be respectful of their feelings and experiences, even if you disagree with them or find them uncomfortable.
  5. Pick a different question related to the previous question, but not too similar: This will help the interviewee to stay on track and avoid feeling like they are being interrogated.
  6. Ask a follow-up question to a previous question: This can help to deepen the conversation and encourage the interviewee to share more information.

Here are some specific examples of how to handle different types of silence or uncomfortable moments:

If the interviewee pauses for a long time before answering a question:

“Would you like to take a step back and revisit this question later?”

“Please let me know if you need me to repeat the question.”

“I’m happy to take a break if you need one.”

I don’t want to put you on the spot. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about instead?”

If the interviewee starts to cry:

“I’m so grateful for your willingness to share this story. I understand if it’s too much to talk about right now. Is there anything else you’d like to share?”

“I understand if you need a few moments to collect your thoughts.”

“I’m here to listen, without judgment.”

“Please know that you are not obligated to answer any question that you don’t feel comfortable answering.”

If the interviewee says something that you disagree with:

“I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on that.”

“Could you please elaborate on that?”

“I have a different understanding of this situation, but I’m interested in hearing your perspective.”

“Would you like to move on to the next question?”

It is also important to remember that you are not obligated to include all of the material from an oral history interview in your final product. If the interviewee says something that is offensive or harmful, you can choose to omit it. However, it is important to be transparent about your editing choices and to explain why you chose to omit certain material.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to create a safe and supportive space for the interviewee to share their story. By handling silence and uncomfortable moments in a respectful and sensitive way, you can help the interviewee feel comfortable and confident enough to share their personal experiences with you.

In anticipation of conducting an oral history interview involving sensitive topics, please refer to our blog post, Tips on How to Deal with Sensitive Topics in an Oral History Interview for valuable insights on handling these conversations with respect and sensitivity

That’s it for this blog, I do hope it was helpful. Kindly keep us in mind for all your oral history transcription needs.

Remember to always be kind, stay positive and learn to unwind.

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